God is alive, angels are alive, people are alive, dogs are alive, worms are alive and trees are alive. What is it that makes them all be alive, while the Milky Way, the Sun, Etna, a car, a Roomba, and an electron are not? I raised a version of this question recently, and since then have had discussions about it with a number of our graduate students, most extensively with Alli Thornton and Hilary Yancey, to whom I am very grateful.
We could say that they are all alive in an analogical sense. But that doesn’t solve the problem, but simply puts a constraint on the shape of a solution. For to solve the problem, we still have to say something about how this particular analogy works.
Here is the best answer I have right now, but it still has some difficulties I will discuss:
- A living thing is one that can act in pursuit of its own ends.
This indeed covers God, angels, people, dogs, worms and trees. Moreover, it produces a gradation of life in respect of the degree and quality with which the thing can act in pursuit of its own ends and the degree of ownership the thing has over its ends. For instance, God is omnipotent and perfectly rational, and he is his own end, so he is most fully alive. All the living creatures, on the other hand, have ultimate ends imposed on them by their nature, to the realization of which end their activity are ordered. However, angels and people additionally make a rational choice of ways to realize their ultimate ends, adopting which ways involves setting themselves intermediate ends. Higher non-human animals like dogs do something that approximates this. Moreover, angels, people and dogs have a wide variety of ways of pursuing that end. On the other hand, trees only pursue a limited variety of ends with a limited variety of means.
A bonus of this definition is that we get the conclusion, which seems intuitively correct, that anything that thinks is alive. For thinking is an end-directed activity—it is directed at action and/or truth. So if we ever make an artificial intelligence system that really thinks, it will be alive.
The Milky Way, the Sun, Mount Etna, a car and a Roomba do not pursue their own ends, I think, if only because they are not substances, and only substances own their ends.
But electrons… This is what troubles me. I think that the fundamental constituents of physical reality, be they particles or fields, are substances. And I think all substances have a teleology, and hence have an end. The distinction I would like to be able to make, however, is between activity in pursuit of an end and teleological activity more generally. Electrons in their characteristic activity are acting teleologically. But their action is not in pursuit of an end. Rather their end is simply to engage in this very activity and nothing more. The activity is teleological, but it does not pursue a telos.
But what if it turns out that electrons do genuinely act in pursuit of an end? Then, perhaps, we will have learned that electrons are a very primitive form of life.
What about God, given divine simplicity, though? God = God’s telos = God’s activity. Well, I think that even if God’s activity is identical with God’s telos, one can make a conceptual distinction that allows one to say that God acts for the sake of that telos, a distinction that perhaps is not there in the case of the electron.
As you can see, I am still not very happy with the account. But it’s the best I have right now.